12 Pages

Introduction Manchester, Air Pollution, and Urban Environmental History

In February 1884 John Ruskin, considered by some modern commentators to be 'the first Green man in England', symbolically represented Manchester as the spiritual home of air pollution. 5 In his lectures on 'The StormCloud of the Nineteenth Century' Ruskin described to his audience a 'terrific and horrible' thunderstorm observed from his home at Coniston Water in the Lake District, during the course of which the air became 'one loathsome mass of sultry and foul fog, like smoke' before finally blowing itself out, only to leave behind the sullen climatic conditions that he provocatively named 'Manchester devil' s darkness'. 6 By the early 1880s, after a century of rapid urban and industrial growth, the name of Manchester had become synonymous with leaden skies, dirt and smoke. Ruskin was deeply worried about the effects that air pollution drifting in from the numerous towns and cities of south-east Lancashire might have upon the Lakes. And in choosing to highlight the smoky

image of Manchester - the world's first real industrial city - as the concrete embodiment of his concerns, he had picked a fitting target? Manchester, once feted as 'the symbol of a new age', had come to epitomise the grimy, polluted industrial city: it was, in the words of one contemporary, 'the chimney of the world'.~

Today the shimmering haze of photochemical smogs has replaced the stifling gloom of sulphurous coal smoke as a major problem of urban life. Many scientists believe that rates of pollution emissions from an exponentially expanding human economy are a serious threat to the ability of the earth's natural cycles to regulate established climatic patterns and purifY the air. Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows and J 0rgen Randers, for example, in their influential study Beyond the Limits declared, 'Human society is now using resources and producing wastes at rates that are not sustainable'.9 More and more people, like Ruskin before them, are making the connection between local urban emissions and wider ranging pollution problems. Invisible, global phenomena such as the 'holes' in the ozone layer and the' greenhouse effect' are now universally recognised as serious - and real-environmental threats. Against this backdrop it is not surprising to find that interest in the roots of air pollution problems is now increasing amongst historians. As concern for the environment has grown, so has the discipline of Environmental History, bringing a muchneeded historical perspective to discussions about the ways in which humans interact with nature. This new field has started to dislodge the stubbornly recurring notion of a past 'Golden Age' of environmental harmony, when humans were more attuned to the earth and nature was pristine and untainted. It also provides a useful contextual framework for informed and critical debate about the implications of persistent pollution for future generations. Air pollution on a grand scale began with the Industrial Revolution, and, therefore, a study of the 'smoke nuisance' in Manchester, the spiritual home of both, may provide valuable insights for those concerned with finding solutions to today's urban environmental problems.